Bass Reeves

The Legendary Black Lawman Of Indian Territory
Bass Reeves

Bass Reeves was an imposing figure. At 6’2, 180 lbs, he made even the most violent outlaws think twice before they resisted arrest. This, along with the fact that he was a skilled, ambidextrous gun slinger, could account for Reeves’ extraordinary ability to round up and bring in multiple prisoners at once. On one occasion he herded nineteen horse thieves to the federal jail in Fort Smith, Arkansas, by himself.

But Reeves story did not start out so remarkably. Born into slavery in 1838, his early years were spent as the property of the William S. Reeves family of Crawford County, Arkansas. In 1846, the family moved to Grayson County, Texas, where Reeves remained with them until the Civil War. During the war he escaped to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma), where he found refuge among the Creek and Seminole tribes and learned their languages and ways of life. It's possible he fought for the Union with them. After the Civil War, Reeves bought a small farm in Van Buren, Arkansas, and settled down with his wife and children. He often assisted Deputy Marshals stationed at Van Buren and Fort Smith, with his knowledge of the land, as they tracked criminals through Indian Territory. This led to a commission of his own as a deputy marshal in 1875, the same year Judge Isaac Charles Parker was named the new judge for the Western District of Arkansas. Reeves became one of the first African Americans Deputy Marshals west of the Mississippi River.

Reeves tracking abilities and skills with a gun soon earned him notoriety with the outlaws throughout the region. Growing up a slave meant he never learned to read or write, but he had the exceptional ability to memorize long lists of arrest warrants and never made a mistake. He brought in outlaws by the dozens from all over Indian Territory. Belle Star, infamous bandit, bootlegger and horse thief, is said to have turned herself in when she found out Reeves had the warrant for her arrest. In 1890, he arrested Greenleaf, a Seminole outlaw who evaded capture for eighteen years and murdered seven people. In 1902, he made his most difficult arrest, his own son, Bennie, for the murder of his wife. Bennie was convicted, and spent ten years of a life sentence in federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. Through a career spanning 32 years, there is no record of Reeves ever being wounded, a feat that earned him the nickname “the invincible marshal.”

In 1893, Reeves was transferred to the East Texas Federal Court in Paris, Texas. He remained there until 1897, when he was transferred to the Muskogee Federal Court. He worked as a deputy marshal until Oklahoma gained statehood in 1907, and state and local governments took over many of the duties of the marshals. Reeves served under seven different U.S. Marshals, and outlived his friend Judge Parker, who died in 1896. Then 69 years old, he took a position as a city policeman in Muskogee. He died of Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys, in January 1910.

Burton, Art. Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

-----------,Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture: Bass Reeves (1838–1910).